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Reviewed by:
  • The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 1450–1800
  • Dean Phillip Bell
The Jews and the Expansion of Europe to the West, 1450–1800, edited by Paolo Bernardini and Norman Fiering. European Expansion and Global Interaction, Vol. 2. New York: Berghahn Books, 2001. 567 pp. $49.95.

This insightful, well-balanced and finely produced volume is based on papers presented at an international conference held at the John Carter Brown library in June 1997. The volume explores the subject of Jewish history in the early modern period from an Atlantic and hemispheric perspective, within the context of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English empires and cutting across the Protestant and Catholic divide. Three principles governing the conference are applied to this volume, namely, that: European and American history should not be separated, that North America and South America should not be separated, and that Jewish history of the period must include New Christians and conversos.

In addition to a general introduction, the 25 essays in the volume are divided into seven parts: ideas and representations of America in European and Jewish consciousness and intellectual history; Jewish identity among the conversos and Marranos of Spanish America; American Jews, New Christians and international trade; and Jews and the Jewish experience in Portuguese Latin America, France and Caribbean French America, Dutch America, and colonial British America. [End Page 162]

A number of themes run through the volume, beginning with the ways in which Jews contributed to the shaping of the political, social, and economic patterns of the New World and were in turn deeply influenced by the New World. Examining Jewish publications, which reveal Jewish interest in the New World and an understanding of the New World closely related to the biblical past, contemporary plight, and Divine Providence of the Jewish people, the essays also treat Jewish contributions to the science of navigation as well as to trade and banking. Several essays explain the role of Jews in the sugar industry and others explicate Jewish work in the preparation of vanilla extract. Some Jewish communities—such as Suriname and Curacao—receive a great deal of (often repeated) attention, and throughout, the interplay between Jews and Christians receives ample attention, providing a sampling of the diversity of the Jewish experience in the New World.

Throughout the early modern period, European Jewish and Christian collaboration was important. Clearly, in America as well, Jews, Christians, and others interacted in many and often complex ways. In America, heterodox beliefs and practices could often escape detection. Spaniards with religious training to detect heterodoxy were, for example, always in short supply in New Spain. Yet Jewish orthodox tradition could be difficult to sustain, and often conditions did not allow for the reconciliation of Jewish law and American life.

Many of the essays assess directly and indirectly the question of toleration of Jews, both in the colonies and back in Europe. Ironically, in some cases there was less toleration abroad than at home, as among the Dutch colonies, and in some cases more opportunity than in Europe. In any event, the position and treatment of the Jews could vary a great deal, even within the same imperial territories. Attitudes toward Jews as well as prohibitions might be selectively applied and enforced, depending upon the specific colonial political context. Even where legislation was restrictive, some contributors argue, Jews could remain if they acted like Christians. However, this notion, as well as the extremely varied ways in which New Christians are described and analyzed, leads the reader to wonder how one should in fact define Jews in this context.

One topic that brings together many of the primary themes of the volume is the question of racial issues—in the significance of skin color rather than religious belief, New Christian and Jewish participation in the slave trade, and the effects of Jewish and African cultures upon one another.

The theme of marranism, crypto-Judaism, conversos, and New Christians is approached in many of the essays in the volume, though with little consistency and even fewer systematic conclusions. Some authors insist on the need to distinguish marranism from crypto-Judaism, as well as Jews and New Christians...

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pp. 162-164
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